Selkirks Appeal: Prime, Roadless Grizzly Habitat at Stake

SPOKANE, Washington, August 22, 2001 (ENS) - Conservation groups are appealing an access grant given to a logging company by the Colville National Forest near Spokane.

The Colville National Forest has issued a decision to grant Stimson Lumber Co. a cost-share easement that a regional conservation coalition says will lead to the degradation of critical endangered species habitat.

The grizzly bear, Canadian lynx, gray wolf, bull trout and mountain caribou - of which there are less than 30 animals left - are at risk from logging and road construction, according to Mike Petersen of The Lands Council, one of several conservation groups which have appealed the agency's ruling.

Known as the Stimson ANILCA Access Easement, the permission was first applied for by Plum Creek Timber in 1991. In December of 1996, Plum Creek sold its holdings in the area to Stimson Lumber Company, and Stimson has revived the application.

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Colville National Forest (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Harv Forsgren, regional forester, Pacific Northwest Region, granted Stimson the access easement in June. He agreed to provide road access for the lumber company to their inholdings on the Sullivan Lake Ranger District.

There are five parcels of private land that cannot be accessed without crossing National Forest System lands and one section that has current road access to one corner but no reasonable access to the rest of the section due to topography, Forsgren, wrote.

Stimson applied for the access grant under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), a state statute that does permit road construction for the purpose of accessing private holdings within the boundaries of federal land. Forsgren wrote, "The Forest Service is required to provide Stimson Lumber Company reasonable access to its lands in accordance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act."

Petersen sees the decision as a victory for state law over a federal law. "This decision by the Forest Service sets a bad precedent," he says, "that ANILCA supercedes the Endangered Species Act."

Stimson plans to use this act to construct two miles of road on public land; some of which cuts through old growth forest.

The Selkirk Conservation Alliance works towards, "Saving what is left of what is wild in the remote forests and watersheds of the South Selkirk Mountains Ecosystem, along the borders of northeast Washington, northwest Idaho and south central British Columbia."

The Stimson parcels are within the LeClerc watershed, home to rare wildlife and fish species. Stimson plans to log 1,577 acres, clear over 16 miles of new roads, and build 28 stream crossings in this critical habitat.

The Colville National Forest is in the northeastern corner of Washington where the desert gives way to the far western foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The forest lies on two north-south oriented mountain ranges, the Kettles and Selkirks.

Between the two ranges runs the Upper Columbia River, broadened by the Grand Coulee Dam into 130 mile long Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area. The Colville Forest's other major river, the Pend Oreille, runs through a trough within the Selkirks.

Hit by many low severity fires in the past, a new historical fire research paper from the Pacific Northwest Research Station, the Wenatchee Forestry Sciences Lab says this area can expect fires that are of greater severity than those that occurred during the past several centuries.

Critics of the Forest Service's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the project, like Mark Sprengel, forest program director with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, says it is inadequate.

All the conditions that led to the Service's initial "Jeopardy" finding still apply, says Sprengel, such as displacement of bears and mortality from road building.

Sprengel says it is "unprecedented" that the management of the forest has decided to grant access against the finding of its own environmental impact study. The FEIS, which was issued last September by the Colville National Forest, determines that "the direct, indirect and cumulative effects of any action alternatives may affect - are likely to adversely affect" caribou, grizzly bear, bull trout, lynx and gray wolf.

The Selkirk Mountain Caribou Recovery Team, made up of agency staff and wildlife biologists agrees. In the FEIS, the team is clear. "Any further losses of habitat places the recovery of caribou at great risk," they write, "when the bulk of activities would occur in the Molybdenite Caribou Management Unit."

The May 17, 2001 Biological Opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this project reviewed the Conservation Agreement. It concludes that the agreement "will help decrease adverse effects to the grizzly bear by providing space and isolation, through limiting activities especially during the spring season, by decreasing risk of mortality through limiting road use, and by monitoring to ensure effectiveness."

The forest service says its report relies on science based knowledge from biologists who also serve as access task force members of the Selkirk Cabinet-Yaak Interagency Grizzly Bear Subcommittee.

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Grizzly bear in the Selkirk Mountains (Photo courtesy Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation)
The Selkirk ecosytem is one of the most complete grizzly bear habitats in the lower 48 states, according to the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation which operates the Selkirk Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Recovery Project. This local conservation group says the grizzlies will likely recover without bringing in bears from other populations if human caused deaths and habitat losses can be contained.

If the grizzlies can be saved, so too will the other endangered or threatened species, including caribou, wolves, and bull trout, say Mark and Delia Owens.

The Lands Council and the Selkirk Conservation Alliance are part of The Selkirk Coalition, a U.S./Canadian group of 19 organizations working to protect and restore the wildlife, watersheds and communities of the Southern Selkirk Mountains.

"Ideally, we'd like to see Stimson at the negotiating table to discuss the reasonable and prudent alternative of selling their land in-holdings to a third party for perpetual protection," says Petersen of The Lands Council. "Unfortunately, this is not the case. This is why we are appealing this project."